Those of us who live in the New York area are lucky for many reasons, musical and non, and one is our proximity to the great Jenny Scheinman, who over the past decade and a half has become one of the most exciting nonpareils in both jazz and roots, seemingly just as comfortable in a storm of heady improv as she is playing country songs with some of that genre’s best. Violin’s her instrument, and she can also sing, but the easy description of Scheinman – and all of the styles of music she inhabits so impressively — pretty much ends there.
[Photo by Michael Wilson]
She’s a Brooklyn dweller, so it’s possible to see Scheinman many times in the five boroughs during the year and in a galaxy of different contexts, from her semi-regular gigs at Barbes in Park Slope, or at least once a year for an extended stretch at the Village Vanguard, or with Bill Frisell, Myra Melford, Robbie Fulks and a who’s who of other collaborators. One week she’ll be on the road with Bruce Cockburn or Rodney Crowell, and the next getting into it with Jason Moran. Or John Zorn. Or Norah Jones. You never know.
One of the most interesting projects Scheinman’s ever been a part of is Mischief & Mayhem, an adventurous quartet that positions her with bassist Todd Sickafoose, drummer Jim Black, and guitar wizard Nels Cline, best known — though certainly not only known — for his sideman role in Wilco.
The group first came together in 2007, has reunited several times since and will this year finally release an album, eponymously titled and cut during a two-day recording session in July 2010. It’s a deeply engrossing set of eight compositions, some expansive — the opener, A Ride With Polly Jean is a seductive, densely layered journey about, of all things, a fantasy about driving down the California coast with PJ Harvey — some more nebulous (Sand Dipper, Devil’s Ink), some antsy and aggressive, with rock drumming (Blues for the Double Vee, The Mite) and some delicate (July Tenth In Three Four).
The conversation between lead voices — Scheinman’s violin and Cline’s guitars — is expectedly climactic, but this is also, clearly, a groupthink album, with no one theme, voice, or vibe dominating for too long. And while things can get heavy, there’s always a subversive streak, too — this is a record with a tribute song called Ali Farka Touche, after all.
The group’s members are all plenty busy but they will reunite, Scheinman tells us, for another stretch of Village Vanguard dates likely this summer, and also play a CD release show at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge on Feb. 20. The album itself officially drops March 6.
In conversation, Scheinman is a lot like her music: thorough, intense and cerebral, with hints of whimsy and, well, mischief. She opened up to Hidden Track about Mischief & Mayhem and her next round of projects — including a particularly personal project due in May.
HIDDEN TRACK: Tell me about the first time you played with Nels. How long have you known each other?
JENNY SCHEINMAN: We’ve known each other since I think 1998. I had seen him play and I’d been introduced to him in a casual way. But we did a double bill in L.A. in 1999. It was after I had moved to New York but I still had a band in California with Scott Amendola, who had also played with him — that was the band I did my (2000) album Live at Yoshi’s with. We played in L.A., and we stayed at Nels’ house. He was a wonderful host and he loved our music, and he and I clicked personally right away. We did a band with Scott that was primarily Scott’s music and we toured that band in a van up and down the West Coast, it was great.
HT: So how did Mischief & Mayhem first come together?
JS: It was at Celebrate Brooklyn at the Prospect Park Bandshell in 2007. Well, actually, the first Mischief & Mayhem gig had been at Barbes in Brooklyn a few nights earlier. That was really fun. We totally blew the walls off that place, it’s smaller than the [Village] Vanguard. But I put it together because I was asked by the Celebrate Brooklyn people to do an instrumental set on that stage. My trend was instrumental music and jazz and that kind of thing, played in more intimate settings. I’m often not a fan of jazz in big outdoor type places — the sound travels, and you just don’t get to an intimate feeling. But they specifically asked for an instrumental set, so I thought, what is the group of musicians that I love that can project, and that is sort of exuberant and has a charisma that goes beyond the intrigue and intimacy and interaction of a small jazz setting?
So there was Nels, and the second person I came to was Jim Black, who I played with when I first moved to New York. I hadn’t played with him for a while but his playing is very…well, it keeps your interest. There are a lot of rock influences in it, some groove, and he’s dynamic in a way I thought would work on the big stage and captivate an audience and kind of go beyond the first 20 rows. Jim and Nels hadn’t played together before, but I think of them as very similar players: dutiful, but also passionate and sentimental and surprising. There’s always the thrill of risk for them, but they’re also groovy — there’s something about them that’s similar. Their energy is kind of similar — they both grin madly — and what’s what I wanted. They did click, really well.
Todd was somebody I’ve played with for a long time — also a friend from the West Coast. I met him around the same time I met Nels. He’s toured for many years with Ani DiFranco in many combinations, but one I remember that was really impressive was as a duo. He commanded a lot of energy and attention and has a real sort of arranger-composer head — he does way more than base, functional stuff. Anyway, that’s how it all came together.
HT: You play in a number of combinations and have played with a huge number of people and in a wide variety of settings, so I’m sure you’ve learned how to tell which projects will have longevity and which are just one-offs or temporary pursuits. What jumped out about Mischief & Mayhem?
JS: It is always such a wild guess. It’s like at a dinner party, or matchmaking. Musical chemistry isn’t all that far off from sexual chemistry, it’s sometimes surprising what works. I’ve had an opportunity to try so many different combinations as a player, but I’m often surprised which ones work and which ones don’t. It doesn’t always have to do with instruments, either — Mischief & Mayhem is a fairly standard group of instruments, other than the violin — and sometimes people just get off on each other even if the instruments aren’t standard. We did totally click. We immediately had a band vibe and we went on tour after that gig. We’ve played at the Vanguard for two weeks in each of the past two years, and it has developed. We have a bigger repertoire and the feeling of the band was basically clear immediately.
HT: Would you liken the chemistry here to any combination or any setting you’ve played in before?
JS: It’s probably the most similar to the group I did Live at Yoshi’s with. I don’t know, I’ve moved toward a beautiful, cinematic, chamber feel with all the elements I like, and less…well, my first record was live and it’s very much about the combined energy of the players. We had really electric moments, not electric in the sense we’re plugged in but moments where the energy sort of sparks. That was the thing about that band I was going for, where we were trying all sorts of stuff and there wasn’t as much room for arranged harmonies or obligatos or counterpoints. All my other records have at least a clarinet, or a trumpet or a piano. One of them had guitar and accordion. They got bigger and in a way they got more arranged for the players — clear songs and playing them as a band.
[Mischief & Mayhem] is basically a little rock band without a singer, as much as we do as improvising players. It’s fun. It’s been more than 10 years since that first record and I didn’t intend to return to that kind of record, but it’s part of a cycle in my own creative process to return to this kind of energy.
HT: When did it become clear you should make a Mischief & Mayhem record?
JS: I always have a million records in my head, but it became clear, I would say, about 70 seconds into the first gig [laughs]. I struggled with making a record, though, because my taste as a listener of records has definitely moved away from searching for peak moments. I want a record that pleases me more of the time and doesn’t necessarily sound like a live gig and people in a room having a party together. But this band by nature is in the name. We’re seeking mischief and mayhem.
HT: I hope so.
JS: Yeah. It’s a tricky thing to record, and it took a while to figure out how to do it. We recorded it a week after the Vanguard [run], the following Monday and Tuesday. There’s always a huge adjustment going from a small room and a big, enthused audience to the sterility of a studio, where things need to be a bit more isolated. With my instrument, I need to be isolated compared to the other ones — it’s a weak little thing compared to a drum and an electric guitar. But when you play live, you feel like there’s less effort because you can suck up so much energy from the audience. There’s that whole dynamic.
So it took a while to figure out what we had done, and we focused on the energy — these ecstatic moments in the energy and the music — but not enough so it felt like too much noise and too much chaos. This was definitely a trickier one; other records, I had very clearly in my head what I was going for. There are always surprises — I don’t really control musicians too much — but this one was more out of my control. It was challenging.
[Photo by Michael Wilson]
HT: Will you return to the Vanguard with Mischief & Mayhem this year too?
JS: We don’t have a date, but I have an open invitation to the Vanguard for two weeks. I’ve been doing those two weeks a year for a few years, this past year I did one with Mischief & Mayhem and then another with Bill Frisell and Brian Blade [in December]. Mischief & Mayhem seems to be falling right in the summer. It falls on what’s normally considered the most terrible week of the year but, I don’t know, hot and sweaty seem perfect for that band. It’s so extreme. That might just happen again.
HT: Tell me about that Bill Frisell-Brian Blade trio you did. You’ve been playing with Bill for ages, of course. Had you played much with Brian?
JS: I didn’t know Brian very well other than from records. We all have a connection being involved in improvised music — jazz if you want to call it that — but also to singing and being committed to that kind of music, too. He’s played with Emmylou Harris, and a lot of the Daniel Lanois productions, and worked with Lucinda Williams and with a lot of singers, some of them slightly jazzy but most of them a little bit more roots-oriented. We both have singing records as well. We thought that maybe Brian would sing a little and I would sing a little, and we ended up doing instrumentals. But there’s kind of a song fascination with all of us — fascination in concrete form and the content in a lyric, or a story. But I have played with BIll for maybe 15 years, and Brian, I had asked him to do a few things before and he’s extremely busy.
HT: Well, so are you, right?
JS: We are all just totally busy. It was originally going to be a Bill-and-me duo, and we’re going to do that at Newport this year — a duo show. But I thought about whether there was one more person I could add, and I woke up one morning with Brian Blade in my head. When you’re not really friends with someone it feels like a shot in the dark to ask. So I wrote him a polite, gentle letter asking if he’d do it, and he was totally down. He knew my music and it ended up being a wonderful week of friendship and funny, exciting music. I was totally in heaven. People are always different when you’re there playing with them instead of listening to them on record. As a bandleader your slight manipulation is that you have to pick repertoire to bring out the musicians’ parts you especially like. So I got my favorite Brian and my favorite Bill, which for Bill is totally unhinged and kind of rocking and funny, and for Brian is really groovy and surprising and dynamic.
HT: While I have you, what’s on your plate for the next couple of months?
JS: Well, I’m having a baby in May, so I’ll be very pregnant during the release party.
JS: Thank you. I’m taking the summer off mostly but I’ll be at Newport in August and then doing a bunch of stuff in the fall. My next recording is going to be a vocal recording. It’s material that I’ve toured a lot, and narrowed down quite a lot. It’s all originals this time around, and I just have to put together the team of players and all of the other things that go into a record. I might do some tracks solo. My other records are ensemble records, but I toured for two months last summer playing with Bruce Cockburn and opening for him solo. It worked out but I hadn’t been that scared to do something a while, and it was powerful in that it was really stripped down and bare. It’s also a convenient thing to do when I’m not as active with bigger ensembles.
JS: Sounds good. And this will be your second child, if I remember correctly? How old is your son now and more importantly, how musical is he?
HT: He’s two and a half. You know, I don’t push anything, but he plays drums to everything. He has a little drumset. I’m yet to the point of deciding whether I’m going to teach him discipline in music. That’s the key. I think a lot of kids are musical. The little guy’s pretty funny and social. We’ll see where that goes. He dances a lot and keeps a beat. He likes music.